Over the next few years, the new AS, A Level and GCSE qualifications that are introduced will be linear in structure, not modular. Most of the qualifications that will be phased out are modular or ‘unitised’, so this represents a change for many of these qualifications. In addition, for the new qualifications, AS Levels will be ‘decoupled’ from the A Levels, that is, they will be separate qualifications, no longer contributing towards the A Level grade.
How do modular qualifications work?
Modular qualifications are designed to be taken in chunks, or units, throughout the course. Marks (and unit grades) are accumulated along the way, and when all the required units have been taken, an overall grade is issued. Since exam papers can vary in difficulty from one series to the next, a common scale is used (called the uniform mark scale or UMS) to ensure marks gained on an easier paper do not advantage candidates compared with those who gain marks on a harder paper. (There’s more information about UMS in the Results section).
How do linear qualifications work?
Linear qualifications are different. They’re designed to be taught continuously over the length of the course (typically two years for GCSE or A Level), and all the assessment takes place at the end of the course. As they are not broken down into chunks, linear courses give more scope for teaching and assessing across topics, and drawing topics and ideas together.
Since candidates take all the assessed components of a linear qualification at the end of the course, there’s no need to combine marks from assessments on different occasions so there’s also no need for UMS marks to be used. Marks for all the components taken by the candidates are just added together (allowing in some cases for weighting of certain components) in order to get the candidate’s total mark. And it is this total mark that will determine the candidate’s grade – the candidate will not receive UMS marks, because in linear qualifications they don’t exist.
How do grade boundaries work?
Grade boundaries work in a very similar way for unitised and linear qualifications, but there are some important differences.
For unitised qualifications, because each unit is a standalone assessment potentially taken at different times in the course, grade boundaries are set at unit level. For linear qualifications, where the components are taken at the same time, they are set at qualification level – the grade for the overall qualification is then issued according to the qualification grade boundary.
We realise it’s useful for learners and teachers to understand how their performance in a particular component contributes to the overall qualification grade. For this reason, we publish ‘illustrative’ or ‘notional’ grade boundaries at component level, which show what grade the mark would equate to if grades were published at this level.
However, it’s worth being aware that ‘grades’ at component level don’t automatically add up to the same grade at qualification level.
Phasing in and phasing out of qualifications
The timetable for the introduction of the new qualifications, and for the withdrawal of the existing qualifications, spans a number of years (2016–2018). Therefore, there’s going to be a ‘mixed economy’ for the next few years, with modular and linear qualifications running alongside one another.
It might be helpful to remember the following rule of thumb: modular qualifications involve units, and use UMS, whilst linear qualifications involve components, and use raw marks only (not UMS). There are some exceptions, e.g. History, which has a unitised structure but still works like a linear qualification. History is set up this way because it has many different entry options available, reflecting the many periods of history covered within the specification. However, the units will be treated in the same way as components and, although results will be issued at unit level, raw marks will be used rather than UMS.
Mike Forster - Head of Research and Technical Standards
Mike Forster is the Head of the Research and Technical Standards team, which is part of Assessment Standards in OCR. Mike and his team provide data, research and technical support for all general and vocational qualifications. The team are also involved in discussions with the regulators and other exam boards over technical issues with awarding and setting standards in reformed qualifications. OCR is part of Cambridge Assessment which is a department of the University of Cambridge.